Warming the Planet to Keep Myself Cool

by Carl Duivenvoorden (www.changeyourcorner.com). Carl is one of 22 Atlantic Canadians trained by Al Gore to deliver presentations of 'An Inconvenient Truth.' His column runs every other Monday in the Telegraph Journal.

I have a love-hate relationship with air conditioning. I love it because a bit of cool is welcome comfort on a hot summer day. But I hate the trade-off it represents: in return for a little short-term cooling of an enclosed space today, it causes emissions that will lead to a long-term warming of the planet tomorrow.

The cost of air conditioning

Whether in vehicles or buildings, air conditioning is hard on the pocketbook and the environment.

In vehicles, next to driving, air conditioning is the biggest load on the engine. According to Natural Resources Canada, air conditioning can increase fuel consumption by 20% in city driving. That means a vehicle that normally goes 800 kilometres on a tank of fuel will only go about 675 kilometres with the air conditioner is on. In dollars and pollution, that’s a huge premium to pay for a bit of short-term cooling – and many of us have the AC on by default all summer.

The air conditioning of buildings is a significant part of the July load on our power grid. Much of our electricity in NB is generated from coal and oil, so it’s a pretty safe bet that (except for those times when we’re importing hydro from Quebec) every time an NB air conditioner is switched on, an extra little puff of smoke comes out of a big smokestack somewhere. And, of course, that spinning meter on the side of the building tallies up the power bill faster too.

Thankfully, there is a middle ground, combining savings, summer comfort and reduced environmental impact.

Saving in vehicles

The best way to prevent the huge decrease in mileage that air conditioning causes is to turn it off. But that doesn’t mean you need to sit roasting in your vehicle.

When driving 60 KMH or less, roll down your window and enjoy a bit of fresh air. If necessary, you can use your vehicle’s fan to blow fresh air into your face. On most days, this combination will provide a pretty good measure of comfort, for free. Wise dogs have known the pure joy of fresh air for years.

At speeds greater than 60 KMH, the added air resistance caused by open windows makes the engine work harder and burn more fuel, partially offsetting the savings of not using AC. But you can keep a comfortable airflow moving by using the fan to bring in fresh air and keeping a window or sunroof open just a crack to let it out.

Of course, there will be hot days when that’s not enough. Still, you can save by alternating the AC on and off to get just the amount of cooling you need. You can service your vehicle’s air conditioning system so that it runs efficiently, and you can add tinted glass to reduce the amount of heat coming in.

Saving indoors

There are several simple ways to save on air conditioning at home and work:

  • Set the thermostat at a reasonable level. Logic, yes, but virtually everyone knows of buildings where the receptionist sits freezing all summer. That’s a pretty good indicator of wasted money and energy. A couple of years ago, a Halifax university adjusted all campus thermostats upward just two degrees, and its AC bill decreased by a third.
  • Use the AC only when you need it, where you need it. Cool only the spaces where people live or work, for the time they are there.
  • Keep windows closed while the AC is on
  • Dress lightly to reduce the need for AC
  • Turn off everything you can that produces heat, such as photocopiers and coffee makers. Get rid of incandescent light bulbs because the heat they produce makes your AC work harder; install compact fluorescents instead
  • Draw blinds during hot days to keep the heat out; open windows at night to let cool air in; use fans instead of AC
  • If buying a new AC system, choose an efficient one with the Energy Star rating. If you’re replacing an existing system with a new Energy Star system while upgrading your home, you may be eligible for a grant from Efficiency NB and the federal ecoENERGY program.

Cool you, cool planet

Air conditioning is a short term comfort that has a long term impact. But fortunately, there are ways you can save money and stay cool without overheating the planet.